Sunday, October 11, 2009

Why I'm not participating in Spa Week

This week is Spa Week in DC. For those of you who don’t know, Spa Week is a chance for spa’s to take their really expensive spa treatments and knock them down to $50 so that people who don’t really want to pay normal price can snap up this amazing deal and likely not come back again until the next Spa Week, which is probably just in a few months anyway. Spa Week Media Group even gets the participating spas to pay for the privilege of taking a huge discount because the buzz around Spa Week helps pack their appointment books.

I have no idea if this actually results in good client retention. It doesn't really matter because the reason I don’t participate in Spa Week is that Lunar Massage is not a spa.

I started this business because I saw the rapid expansion of spa franchises inspired by Massage Envy and because I think spas are cheesy and overpriced. Also, only 32% of Americans have had a professional massage and only 13% of those people do it for the luxury or the pampering aspect. This struck me as bizarre, because most of the delivery mechanisms for massage are firmly behind the wall of luxury and pampering, not to mention many have been infected with the embarrassing Americanization of eastern philosophy.

Look up an area spa and skim through the menu – you may be promised Zen states or even the achievement of nirvana. If you’re spared the Buddha-based branding you still have to wade through a list of techniques with paragraph-long descriptions that mean little to non-practitioners (i.e. the actual consumer). And given the decor of these places it's obvious that much of the industry is focused on baby boomer women in the suburbs (no offense, Mom).

My hunch has been that so few people experience massage because the industry has inexplicably made it so hard for people. It’s expensive, time-consuming, and cheesy. The last accusation may be my own particular grudge, but I would bet men have stayed away from massage more than necessary because of the feminine implications of the spa and the shudder-inducing whiffs of words like “aromatherapy.”

Stock photography doesn’t help much either. Almost all photos we see of massage are attractive women naked on a table with petals or shells or black stones lining their pretty little spines, hovered over by another attractive woman with her hands laid protectively on her as if in a church service. Worse still are the ones with attractive woman #1 smiling blissfully while attractive woman #2 again, lays benign hands on the shoulders or back. Do a quick Google image search and you’ll see what I mean. These images have almost no relation to the tough, physical work involved in massage, but attempts to capture it realistically result in chunks of flesh being grasped between hands at the scruff of the neck or under the scapula in a way that makes a viewer cringe.

But the funny thing about going against people’s preconceptions of a service, flawed though they may be, is that it’s harder to explain what you do. It has been more difficult for me to overcome the attractive-naked-lady-with-stones-or-petals expectation than I anticipated. But when people do understand our product – whether or not they are “spa people” – they really love it. And I love it when someone calls and says “can I come in RIGHT NOW because I’m in pain” and I can say “yes.”

My attempt to divorce massage from the spa environment is concurrent with trends of clothed massage places in malls and airports. Gradually we are bringing massage out from dim, hushed rooms and letting people feel the power of good bodywork without having to jump over all the aforementioned hurdles. The word “bodywork” itself may be an attempt to broaden the mental image beyond “massage” but it is not quite descriptive enough. I don’t mind correcting people who assume we are a spa; don’t get me started about getting people to adopt “massage studio” instead of “massage parlor.” All these linguistic mishaps are signals of an industry in the process of maturing.

No, Lunar Massage is not participating in Spa Week, but we are here any time you want an affordable, easy massage that doesn’t leave you oily, disoriented, and wincing at bright lights.